Louis Riel

A column article by: Stacey Pavlick


Stacey Pavlick is a pop culture critic looking to expand her knowledge of comics. So she allowed herself to be submitted to an experiment at the hands of Comics Bulletin's Co-Managing Editors Danny Djeljosevic and Nick Hanover, wherein they've created a list of graphic novels for her to read and report back on, offering her unique perspective as a newcomer to the medium eager to receive a Panel Education.

Map endpapers. Ack. Even book nerds have turn-offs, and I have to say that even still, despite trying to coach myself through it when I open a book and see a compass rose, cross-hatched surface areas or really anything vaguely topographical, I instantly think, “Oh fuck.” I don’t even know what’s going on here yet and already you’re educating me on the terrain? You presume my interest too quickly, map endpapers! I know this chops a few points off of my IQ and makes me sound like a person who confuses the terms “astronomy” and “astrology,” but the truth of the matter is that I hate maps. Which has nothing to do with my status as a Libra. 

This may be why I never picked up Chester Brown’s Louis Riel, those damned introductory maps. Also, a good deal of plot development hinges on governmental non-performance of corrective land surveys and a lax response in petitions for titled ownership. In the 1800s. In Canada, no less. Doesn’t sound particularly riveting, especially coming from this author-artist who has treated us to autobiographic confessionals about porn and prostitution and graced our imaginations with characters who continuously poop.

No, Louis Riel wipes clean away all of that weirdness, having none of the awkward titillation of The Playboy or the absurdity of Ed the Happy Clown. This is a “comic-strip biography” of historical figure Louis Riel, the M├ętis freedom fighter who organized rebellions against a Canadian government that – same old story – endeavored to squelch the land rights and cultural heritage of the region’s indigenous people. That Riel was as squirrely as the forests from whence he came underlines the woozy suggestion that the sum of history rides on a razor’s edge of certain sequences of total random chance, that if merely one person in any of the formative gatherings had uttered “Huh?” – or uttered “Huh?” a bit louder – the whole thing might’ve come out differently. In Louis Riel, we are witness to Riel’s vacillations between leader and lunatic as Chester Brown splices together a meta-biography of this folkloric champion of Manitoba.

At 241 pages and six panels per page, Brown encapsulates 16 years’ worth of dense regional history, biographical anecdote, bureaucratic maneuvering and tactical skirmish strategy through attentive compression. It’s as if the design was the solution to its own challenge: the panels are regimented, the work is absent of full page epiphanies or discontinuous graphic interruptions. The renderings are simple, intended to signify actual time and place with an economy of props and, in periods of significant dialogue, devoid of background. Ingeniously, dialogue that would have been spoken in French is denoted in speech balloons with brackets, a simple visual indicator that reflects the multi-lingual dimension of the conflict. The characters are drawn with traits that register on a subliminal level: politicians with top hats and Pinocchio noses, priests that resemble a jumble of Father Christmases, Riel himself with oversized blocks for hands and a defiant exclamation of hair that is all angles and antagonism.   

Brown anticipates the needs of his readers and the verbal limits that are complicit within a graphic novel format. Arrowed text blocks explain the provenance of new faces, characters frequently address each other by name, fast-forwards through time are specifically noted. The panels masterfully express the impact of moments; in a story that is necessarily so compact, it is all the more effective when Brown lingers on a scene. There are various sequences of consideration in which a particular panel is repeated or altered so very slightly: There are two identical panels, not coincidentally spanning a page break, wherein a Canadian official is forging a “royal proclamation”; another two motionless panels, disarming in their silence, precede a firing squad execution. And a generous 12 panels depict Riel’s desperate attempt to declare himself “prophet of the New World” from behind an asylum cell’s door, one arm reaching out, grasping and then retreating to the window bars before finally withdrawing. This slow motion withering of an impassioned gesture communicates as much as paragraphs of laboriously fact-checked text ever could.

But what is most inventive about Brown’s treatment of Louis Riel is not just that it is a non-traditional work of biography, but that it is a work about the work of assembling a non-traditional work of biography. From the jump, Brown concedes that the whole thing is a tribute of distortion, admitting to skipping over and outright ignoring substantial blocks of time in the interest of juicing up a compelling narrative. I mean, we all know this on some level when we read biographies, but here’s Brown actually saying, “Yeah, some of this stuff is pretty boring so I scrapped it. Also, there are multiplicities of accounts about certain events, so I just picked whatever I liked best, even if it’s probably wrong. I’m not entirely sure I didn’t make shit up unintentionally.” Brown’s extensive hand written endnotes are where he hashes this all out, some factually elucidating on a point, others copping to inaccuracy, still others citing primary sources and expounding on personal supposition. In an endnote describing his choice to favor a particular theory that villainizes John A. Macdonald, the then-Prime Minister of Canada, Brown concludes – as if this is tangential commentary – that he’d rather have lived under the rule of Macdonald than Riel. And see, to me, this aside clangs like a two ton bell.

It’s this muddling up of researcher, artist, audience, patriot, journalist, storyteller and modern man that makes Louis Riel a work that commands attention from more than a handful of niche historians and comics-literate school librarians. Perhaps more interesting for what it is than what it’s about, Louis Riel demonstrates the value of a relativist biography, hedging academia’s insistence on exhaustive research against a self-awareness of the literal impossibility surrounding the pursuit of, or even the very notion of, a work of retrospective non-fiction.

Stacey Pavlick's day job has zero to do with her undergrad degrees in Philosophy and Political Science. A newcomer to comics, more of her writing can be found on Spectrum Culture, where she expounds on music and books and wields her influence as Managing Editor. She lives in a Philadelphia rowhouse with her longtime boyfriend, a handful of comedically spirited cats and a pit bull rescue, whom she frequently plays as if his body is a furry keyboard.

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